A long time coming

Fraud case brings reclusive Travelers back under warranted scrutiny

Few criminal indictments inspire masses of people to ask, “What the heck took so long?”

 

But that was this area’s collective response after the recent federal indictments of 20 so-called “Irish Travelers” in South Carolina’s Murphy Village.

The group is charged with various forms of fraud involving federal benefits, life insurance and automobile financing.

The unofficial hamlet near North Augusta, S.C., is described in the 45-count indictment as “a self-identified group of itinerant laborers and salesmen who offer services door to door. The men will ‘travel’ to other states during favorable weather to work in various construction-related jobs, while the women generally will remain in Murphy Village. Murphy Village is insular and isolated. The Travelers speak a unique dialect of English and Gaelic, which is called ‘Cant,’ in addition to normal English.

“Travelers refer to non-Travelers as ‘country people.’ Many of the defendants are Travelers and reside in Murphy Village where they own large homes, luxury cars and expensive jewelry and clothes, which are often acquired through the fraud schemes or acquired with the proceeds of the fraud schemes described below.”

While newcomers to the CSRA are often taken aback by the phenomenon – and the enclave’s murky legal reputation and ability to navigate the rest of society unimpeded – it’s certain that none of the feds’ above description comes as a shock to longtime residents.

The main curiosity, again, is why this kind of case took so long to bring.

Several reasons.

First, fraud cases are very difficult to make. Many folks know how to skirt the foggy bottom separating trackable crimes and shadowy scams – and it takes significant time, resources, expertise and doggedness to build such cases in the courts.

In addition, as one law enforcement source pointed out to us, it’s particularly vexing to try to charge stealthy scammers who target vulnerable individuals one at a time. The culprits come and go quickly, with no paper trail to speak of.

It’s quite another thing, however, when allegedly scamming taxpayers through the government. It leaves a sometimes unequivocal paper trail.

In this case, the Travelers are charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act – designed to attack organized crime and hit it where it hurts: The law allows not only for serious prison time, but also triple damages.

It’s a little paradoxical: Though highly reclusive, Travelers can be quite ubiquitous in the Augusta area, particularly in restaurants on weekend evenings. And their appearance – particularly the abundant hair spray and the very young girls made up as if for a toddler beauty pageant – is oddly conspicuous for such a reclusive clan.

A Wikipedia entry for Irish Travelers across the world even devotes this observation to those of this area: “The largest and most affluent population of about 2,500 lives in Murphy Village, outside of the town of North Augusta, South Carolina.”

While it’s likely the feds will look to confiscate some of the Travelers luxury cars and lavish homes that are considered ill-gotten gain – and reports indicate such actions may already be taking place – it’s a little odd that the indictments have come only with summonses to appear, rather than actual arrests.

We’ll see if that works.

Law enforcement and media have turned a spotlight on the Travelers on occasion through the years. An exposé on Dateline NBC and resulting public outrage inspired South Carolina officials to perform an investigation and a raid in March 1997. Only a few convictions followed.

An overriding problem in the case of grifters and scam artists is that victims are often embarrassed and don’t want to come forward to press charges. And even when they do, their main motivation, naturally, is to just get their money back if possible. That often requires little or no jail time.

Problem is, if the perpetrators do make good on restitution, it’s often at the expense of new victims – so all we’ve done is kick the can down the road to some other poor, unsuspecting
potential victim.

If the new indictments ring true – and the indicted actually show up as ordered – perhaps the cycle can be stopped.

Let’s hope so.

 

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Thu, 12/14/2017 - 23:31

Rick McKee Editorial Cartoon